London, United Kingdom – Brussels served the Brexit ball back into Britain’s court on Monday morning by offering a three-month “flextension” – in an apparent setback for the Conservative prime minister, who had pledged to quit the EU this Thursday, “do or die”.
But in a surprise move that confirmed the capacity of Brexit to confound, opposition MPs may have thrown Boris Johnson a lifeline – offering him another chance to secure the poll he again failed to get on Monday, and which he sees as a secret weapon to ensure that the UK quits Europe.
“We are at a point now where Boris Johnson, like his predecessor Theresa May, is exhausted by this parliamentary arithmetic and is doing everything he can to get an election before Christmas,” Anthony Ridge-Newman, a senior lecturer at Liverpool Hope University and the head of UK conservatism studies, told Al Jazeera.
“I don’t think anybody who imagines themselves becoming prime minister would also imagine being in a position where they are effectively powerless and beholden to Parliament.”
On Monday, European Council president Donald Tusk confirmed the EU27 had agreed to the request Johnson was reluctantly forced to make last week to extend the UK’s October 31 deadline, thereby avoiding the “no-deal” Brexit that economists say would be disastrous.
The EU’s new “flextension” will run until 31 January 2020, with the option for the UK to quit the bloc earlier if MPs can finally agree to a withdrawal deal after more than two years of divisive wrangling.
Despite internal disagreements, the EU’s clear intention was to crank up pressure for a vote in the UK – either a general election or a second Brexit referendum – to break the logjam.
The move paves the way for British opposition parties to back a general election which has now been sought by Johnson in vain three times under current parliamentary rules.
The prime minister again failed on Monday night to get the two-thirds majority in Parliament he needed to call a snap poll. His strategy appears to involve fast-tracking the Brexit deal he reached with Brussels, then going to the voters.
Opposition parties have blocked this stratagem largely because it would give Johnson control of the timing – and still leave open the possibility of Brexit hardliners engineering the “no-deal” withdrawal that they prefer.
The main opposition Labour Party – which says it wants an election, but not yet – has insisted it will not back a poll until it has gained assurances that Johnson will not allow the UK to crash out of the EU without a deal on the new deadline of January 31.
In a surprise move at the weekend, however, the Liberal Democrats and Scottish National Party seized the agenda by jointly proposing a parliamentary device to deliver Johnson his election.
They proposed an election on December 9 in a political gamble based on the belief that they could win voters disillusioned with the main parties in a forthcoming poll.
Unlike parliamentary rules that have so far prevented Johnson from engineering an election – by which he needs the backing of two-thirds or 434 of all MPs – the proposed move is likely to take the form of a simple bill that requires a majority of just one.
While rejecting the plan in the wake of Monday night’s defeat, Johnson proposed an identical device that differs only in terms of the proposed election date – December 12 – but reportedly would include a pledge to put his Brexit withdrawal bill on hold.
Parliament is set to decide on Tuesday, with the arithmetic suggesting that both Johnson’s proposal or that of the Lib Dems and SNP could result in a December election.
“Under this Liberal Democrat and SNP one-line bill, there will be a need for just a simple majority – and if the prime minister inevitably has the Lib Dems and the SNP on side, then he should win,” said Maddy Thimont Jack, a researcher at the Institute for Government in London.
The dates are important, because agreeing to an election on December 9 would block the prime minister from proceeding with his proposed Brexit withdrawal bill.
The Liberal Democrats move appeared to recognise that there is insufficient support within Parliament for its favoured policy of a second Brexit referendum – which could in theory entirely reverse the UK’s decision to withdraw from the EU.
Nikos Skoutaris, associate professor in European Union law at the University of East Anglia, said: “The Lib Dem and the SNP initiative is puzzling, and probably has to do with the fact that they simply feel confident that in the next elections they are going to get more seats.
“I don’t think they have abandoned the People’s Vote – but I think they have become realistic in seeing in the current parliament that the numbers are not there, and so they may as well try in the next parliament.”
If on Tuesday night a sufficient number of MPs vote for an election, then a vote is certain to take place in December – a month during which UK politicians have typically eschewed elections.
Analysts said Johnson aims to fight a “people versus Parliament” election on the premise that British voters have been let down by their politicians over Brexit.
Although his Conservatives are currently well ahead of Labour in the polls – for many observers all bets are off when it comes to predicting the outcome.
Ridge-Newman believes firmly, however, that Parliament’s refusal to back Johnson’s requests for an election will work against it – and in particular, against the leader of the Labour opposition, Jeremy Corbyn.
“I strongly believe that the way this scenario is panning out is actually strengthening Boris Johnson’s position to an incredible extent,” he said.
“The Conservatives are playing to the notion that Boris Johnson is pushing forward and breaking every sinew in order to deliver Brexit – yet Parliament, largely led by Jeremy Corbyn, is doing everything it can to stop it.”
Skoutaris said the entire Brexit debate had been characterised by rapidly changing political fortunes, making the outcome of an election particularly hard to call.
He added: “In the current polls he is leading, but 40 days in UK politics is a very long time and anything can happen.”